Sunday, January 30, 2011

Life-Defining Change: Understanding Transition

I have an excellent memory. With very little trouble I can drill down and recall days from my childhood which have no seeming significance, and remember with photographic quality what I wore, who was with me, what was said, and how my surroundings looked. Not every single day exists this way in my memory, but the ones that do are like snapshots; they are touchstones for me and I can follow them backward from this moment and deep into my past. Sometimes these memories and moments are meaningless. Sometimes they are heavy with consequence and I can see in those recollections that at that space in time, my life took a divergent path from the one I had been following.

My salvation experience was like that, not only because I was “saved” or because I accepted Christ, but because of a dream I had that night, which changed my understanding of God forever. After having made my way to the altar that morning at church – the first time I had been inside a house of God since early childhood – I had knelt and prayed for forgiveness and acceptance. I went to a Baptist church then, and the accompanying commotion shamed and frightened me, but I could not ignore the call I had felt. I came home feeling ambiguous about the experience; glad that I had made peace with God, but wondering at the crying, the shaking, and the hugging that came afterward, much like I expected people would greet miners who had spent months trapped underground before coming up into the sunlight in a daring escape from darkness. I did not feel that way myself – for me, going down to that altar was more like finding my way home. That night, I dreamed that I was riding my bike down a narrow, rutted road toward my father’s barn, which had been built the previous summer. The weather was hot but it was late evening and the light slanted in golden shafts through the trees. I could smell hay and green, growing things, and as I rode forward, I saw a man walking toward me. Behind him, a crowd of people trailed through the long grass. I felt that I knew some of these faces but I couldn’t pay much attention to them, because the man was the center of this vision and beside him, all else paled and began to fade. He was a conventional-looking Jesus; dressed in blue and white robes, with long brown hair and a beard, but instead of the sorrowful face I had seen in so many paintings, this man was laughing. His smile was broad and genuine and as I dropped my bike and ran toward him, his arms opened wide. He caught me up in an embrace and I could feel the rough beard against my cheek and ear as he whispered, “I am so glad you came home.”

That dream shaped my faith. There was no judgment in the Christ I met on the road that night, only acceptance, joy, and love. And though I spent the next three years attending a church whose views and traditions were harsh and unyielding, my vision of God never altered. That moment of meeting was, for me, life-defining. It was what sent me out of the Baptist faith and kept me searching and believing through years of pain and hardship. It brought me to an understanding of my own role as a child of God. Though I have often struggled with myself and what it is God might want from me, that moment is a touchstone, a talisman, and I come back to it when I feel myself beginning to forget the joy I felt at that moment of ultimate love and acceptance, of knowing that I had found where I belonged.

That was not the only faith-based transition I experienced, but it was probably the most profound. There have been other important moments of transformation and decision. I can recall a significant day in June 2007, when I sat at my kitchen table on a Saturday morning drinking a cup of coffee and knowing that I could not wait for life to find me any longer – knowing that life was passing me by. I had been waiting for what seemed like forever for some unknown, mysterious sign that I was ready to become what I was meant to be. Like a caterpillar in the stasis of the cocoon, I waited to be transformed. But that morning, I thought about things I wanted to do and could not do because of my fears and the condition my body was in – a condition of my own deliberate making. I faced the long chain of bad decisions I had made and tracked them to their source – a moment in time where choices were taken from me along with my innocence and my sense of self-worth. I sat at my kitchen table and I faced the fact that not only had I been sexually assaulted, but I had allowed that experience to shape my view of myself and what I felt I could do with my future. That moment when I was thirteen years old had an impact that rippled across twenty-two years of existence. That event of pain and humiliation had altered the course of my existence. It was a life-defining change.

My decision that morning over coffee brought me down another path. On this road, I accepted my responsibility toward my body and began working to repair the damage I had deliberately done. Gaining over one hundred pounds had made me feel safe; the fat was my armor against male sexual interest and the possibility of another rape. The idea of taking off that armor was terrifying, but I was through waiting. The process was painstaking and still is, but most of the excess weight is gone. Still, this transition isn’t only about my body. It is also about my mind and my spirit – learning how to see myself as a whole person rather than one who is irrevocably shattered is taking time. Integrating my spirit-self with my corporeal-self is also taking time; I have felt for so long that my spirit inhabits my body the way I inhabit my house that it is difficult to see the two parts as one blended entity. Difficult, but necessary – the disconnection between my physical and spiritual selves has been catastrophic in its consequences; it is what allowed me to mistreat myself so terribly, to bond with an abusive partner and to accept that abuse as normal, and then to make detrimental choices around my coping strategies as I left that relationship and began trying to heal.

It has been said that life is made up of transitions – from infancy to childhood, from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood and independence, from independence to the infirmity of old age, there is never really a time in our lives when we are in stasis. We may not perceive the transitions or understand the anxiety that surrounds them – we may be in a vague state of mental or emotional unrest but will usually attribute those feelings of restlessness or nervousness to stress. And we are right, of course, but most of us never come to place where we dig deeper, trying to find the source. Change is a fact of our existence, but we disregard it unless it takes a shape we cannot ignore. We live on a planet in a Universe that is always in flux, where anything can happen to anyone at any time, but we comfort ourselves with the illusion that we are safe, that we are secure, and that if we only behave in a certain way, most bad things will pass us by. Most of us have no concept of a reality that is entirely fluid, where even our best intentions and protections will ultimately fail. A better way is to embrace the transitions, to know that they are the fabric of our lives and that our stories are written and rewritten by the choices we make in relation to those instances, especially the big ones – the seismic moments of life-defining change.

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